Interesting Times

July 3, 2010


Light in the valley – photograph by Liz Mathews

Art flourishes in difficult circumstances; in bad times people turn to it. This rather obvious statement is convenient for funding bodies, who can be assured that artists, like other vocational workers, need never be paid properly because they will carry on anyway, starving in their proverbial garrets. Whatever else is cut, there’s a vague belief that the arts won’t go away, entirely, just as learning will be maintained by independent scholars if the humanities vanish from our universities. This paradox means that the arts will always fare badly in the unseemly struggle for cash, and that any expression of optimism about their survival seems like an acceptance that, in times like these, the arts are a long way down the list.

A more sinister unspoken desire comes from those who’d like the arts to go away entirely, who feel that hard times are the perfect excuse for a philistine field-day. It’s easy to see why the powerful-but-inept might be frightened of the arts. It’s also easy to see why the false dichotomy is set up between (for example) health and arts funding, in order to represent the arts as non-essentials that must be sacrificed now. Rather like measuring the worth of humanities departments by monetary values which may be relevant to (some of) the sciences but can’t be applied to other fields, so to justify the arts in merely monetary terms leaves out some fundamental element. What is immeasurably important can’t be quantified – another convenient truism.

So, we’re all in an uproar. Following the university financial disaster, the arts will be next to go; execution has merely been postponed by the Arts Council’s use of the reserve fund. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth among the great and the good, even, about the lack of publishing contracts, the dearth of commissions. Even in my own (less elevated) circle, there is lamentation about the future of culture. All the old arguments are rehearsed, then it’s objected that everyone knows that already, then it’s vehemently upheld that it must still be said, again, often.

Well then: art has always been a means of protest and resistance, an expression of forbidden identities (national or individual), a measure of civilized existence in continuity. It provides spiritual sustenance in extreme circumstances, courage to endure loss, consolation and healing, even hope. It tells truths which cannot be expressed in other ways, opens doors to places within which are otherwise inaccessible, interprets our world and creates imaginary worlds beyond, helps us travel towards understanding.

Since none of these matters can be measured or given a monetary value, it’s easy to dismiss them with a cheery assurance that only when people are financially comfortable will they be interested in ‘the arts’ (as one of many possible ‘leisure pursuits’). But the enormous popularity of the cinema during the Depression of the 1930’s is often explained as a distraction from hardship, a necessary escapism. And that cinema (to say nothing of the other arts) also expressed discontent, criticism, a wish for change. This, of course, is the role of art which is so feared by all governments. Totalitarian regimes of all political colours always censor the arts, in fear of what they may express, yet also attempt to use them, because of their enormous power of communication. The puppet theatre which defied the Nazi occupation in Poland, or the music which gave solace to people in the extermination camps, are both human proofs that such regimes are right to be afraid.

For myself, I think accursed Trident should be a lot further down the funding list than money for the arts. But nevertheless, I do feel a certain optimism about our cultural survival, but not optimism as any form of acceptance or collaboration. It does seem that the arts and humanities are under attack specifically, not merely as part of a package of inevitable/neccessary/etc cuts. But – just as the open country that is in the planned route of a motorway is suddenly revealed, not as a quiet valley belonging to nobody much, but a fiercely beloved landscape, a place of beauty deeply valued by a vociferous people who will fight body to bulldozer to protect it – so our cultural life, when it’s really threatened, is recognised anew as precious and vital. Interesting times.

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